Lady Evelyn Cobbold’s High Road To Islam
She was buried in accordance with the principles of Islam on a distant hillside on her estate at Glencarron, Wester Ross, in the Highlands of Scotland, on a bitter day in January 1963. Britain was in the grip of a vicious winter. A lone piper, shaking from cold, played MacCrimmon’s Lament while an imam, who had travelled from London to perform the burial rites, stood firm against the biting Scottish chill as he recited verses from the Holy Quran. It was an extraordinary moment for one of the most remarkable women of 20th century Britain.
Born 145 years ago, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, who, in 1933, became possibly the first British-born woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, was a Scottish aristocrat, a Mayfair socialite, an accomplished angler and renowned deerstalker. Most incredibly of all, she was not only literate in the Arabic language but also claimed to be a Muslim for as long as she could remember, taking the name Lady Zainab as her Muslim name. Her groundbreaking journey to the Arab world’s holiest of places cemented her unique position as a British woman who considered herself a Muslim living in a western society.
But her overall contribution to western understanding of Islam and the east almost faded into obscurity and was only brought back into the public sphere four years ago, with the re-release of her book Pilgrimage to Mecca. Originally published in 1934, the volume documents her physical and spiritual passage to the very heart of the Islamic world.
She was born Lady Evelyn Murray in Edinburgh on July 17, 1867, the eldest child of the Scottish peer, Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore, and Lady Gertrude Coke, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Leicester. Suffering from a heady degree of travel fever, the young Lady Zainab’s perennially hard-up father was forever dragging his family off to the more exotic climes of North Africa where, surrounded by domestic servants of Egyptian and Algerian origin, she spent her childhood winters and was fully immersed in the ways of Islam and Arab life and traditions.
Lady Zainab met John Dupuis Cobbold, a member of a wealthy brewing family from eastern England, in Cairo. There, they married – when Lady Zainab was at the relatively (for then) late age of 24 – in April, 1891. Three children followed between 1893 and 1900, but a life of domesticity in her husband’s home in Suffolk was not congenial to a woman who, so steeped in the sights and sounds of the east, had already developed more exotic tastes than the English county’s comparatively sedate surroundings.
Though she was able to indulge her lust for travel after her marriage, by the turn of the century she was travelling without her husband. In 1912, Lady Zainab published her pro-Islamic, Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert, and with her attentions now very much turned to her travels in North Africa, it was clear that her attachment to the Middle East and to Islam was less a keen interest and more a way of life.
In 1922, she and her husband separated – but never formally divorced – and Lady Zainab received a substantial financial package, including the deer forest of Glencarron. Now independently wealthy, Lady Zainab spent much of the 1920s hunting game but it wasn’t until the death of her husband in 1929 that she committed herself to making the greatest of all journeys for a Muslim, doing so at the age of 65.
“It was clearly a tremendously important achievement,” says Alexander Maitland, friend and authorised biographer of the Middle East explorer Wilfred Thesiger. “As a British traveller – and as a Scotswoman, of course – she was clearly important enough to be part of that heritage of British women going back to Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), followed by Lady Anne Blunt (1837-1917), Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) and Freya Stark (1893-1993). She was very much a part of that. She was very interesting in that her visit prefaced another visit of some importance made in 1938 by Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s longest-living granddaughter, who went with her husband across Saudi Arabia from west to east.
“One should not underestimate the importance of Lady Evelyn doing the journey – being the first British-born woman to make the Haj – and of course the book she wrote about her journey.”
Despite never officially converting to Islam, and with no record of her doing so in front of an imam, Lady Evelyn’s Muslim faith – as the Scots-born daughter of a British aristocratic family – was nevertheless quite remarkable, not least in an era when Islam possessed a somewhat exotic reputation within British society.
“She was certainly unusual, being a Muslim,” Maitland says.
“Changing from being a Roman Catholic to a Protestant or a Protestant to a Roman Catholic, or even diverging from Christianity towards Buddhism – all these were comprehensible and had some precedent. But, to embrace Islam was something very different. And, in that sense, she was even more extraordinary than (English explorer) Harry St. John Philby, who converted to Islam in 1930, and was close to Saudi King Abdulaziz. This set Philby apart from his contemporaries among British travellers, political agents and ambassadors and other people who were involved in the area.”
On its publication, Pilgrimage to Mecca, taking the form of a diary, was favourably received by the British press. The Manchester Guardian, for instance, wrote that the “book has a rare appeal of its own … If she may be thought to be a little prejudiced in favour of her adopted faith, we have been accustomed to hear in its disfavour so much which is based upon pure ignorance and antipathy that a little over-praise, if such it be, comes as a welcome relief.”
And, indeed, with passages that included a vivid account of her relief at finally being granted special permission by King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to perform the Haj pilgrimage – “I had for so long lived in alternate fits of hope and despair, that I can scarcely credit that my great wish is at last to be fulfilled” – and of entering the Mosque of Mecca for the first time – “I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it … I had never imagined anything so stupendous” – the critical acclaim appeared entirely justified. So, why did this exceedingly intelligent woman’s contribution to the west’s understanding of Islam – not to mention her groundbreaking journey – almost disappear from view?
“There are a number of reasons,” says Angus Sladen, Lady Zainab’s great-grandson. “My suspicion is that in British society – the British establishment – she was regarded as a very major eccentric, and maybe a bit snobbish. And, probably in the academic world and the theocratic world in the UK, I think she was regarded as somewhat lightweight. They didn’t think she was that serious and was perhaps doing things for effect rather than for reality. Those who were studying the Muslim world probably thought she hadn’t been well-educated in their view. Her education was from governesses and that was it. So I don’t think they took her seriously at all.”
William Facey, editor of the 2008 publication of Lady Zainab’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, concurs with this assessment, adding that her “three publications were regarded as lightweight travel writing – as indeed they are, if compared with works by Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. What is remarkable about her books is not any quest for objective description, but how personal and heartfelt they are, qualities that in her case come across to the sophisticated modern reader as naivety.”
William Facey, editor of the 2008 publication of Lady Zainab’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, concurs with this assessment, adding that her “three publications were regarded as lightweight travel writing – as indeed they are, if compared with works by Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. What is remarkable about her books is not any quest for objective description, but how personal and heartfelt they are, qualities that in her case come across to the sophisticated modern reader as naivety.
Her Diary Entries – 1933
Lady Evelyn announced her intention to perform the Hajj to Saudi Arabia’s minister in London, Hafiz Wahba, who wrote to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Riyadh requesting formal permission. But, typically for her, she did not wait for a reply, relying instead on a social contact in London to send a letter of introduction to Harry St. John (‘Abd Allah) Philby in Jiddah. Philby had became a Muslim in 1930, and he and his wife, Dora, duly received their unsolicited guest. They introduced her to Jiddah’s small expatriate social circle and even invited the prince (and future king) Faisal to tea to meet the prospective pilgrim. While awaiting permission from the king for Lady Evelyn to go Makkah, Philby arranged for her to travel by car to Madinah, organizing accommodation with a family there.
Feb 28 : The King is away at Riyad, his capital in Nejd, sixteen days’ camel ride from here, so I fear he will not get the letter his Minister in London wrote him for some time…. Till that letter reaches the King, I must possess my soul in patience, and my time is pleasantly spent bathing in the warm sea within the coral reefs, for fear of sharks, or in motor drives in the desert….
March 2 : How I envy the pilgrims we meet on their way to Mecca, while we return to the social life of Jeddah, which would be very pleasant if one were not aware of the mysterious City of Islam hidden in the hills only a few miles from us. Why do we always long for the unattainable, for the Blue Bird which hovers just beyond our reach?
March 2 : We return to Jeddah and dine at the New Hotel, which was where the American engineers, who have come to try to obtain the oil concessions from the King, are now staying. Their wives, Mrs. [Lloyd] Hamilton and Mrs. [Karl] Twitchell, welcome us and give us an excellent dinner, and the party includes Mr. [Stephen] Longrigg, the English representative of the Iraq Oil Company, who is also here trying to get the concession. Rivalry does not appear to spoil the friendly relations existing between all parties….
March 9 : The Emir Faisal arrived punctually at five o’clock…. It was impressive to see his tall figure enter the doorway clad in a brown and gold Abba over a flowing white robe and the picturesque headdress of Nejd, the Koffeya of diaphanous white bound round his head by black and gold chords—called the Aghal…. The Emir is slender and exceedingly graceful in his movements and, like most Nejd Arabs, has an air of distinction and good breeding….
March 12 : Today the news has come through that I am permitted to do the pilgrimage to Mecca and visit Medina. I had for so long lived in alternate fits of hope and despair, that I can scarcely credit that my great wish is at last to be fulfilled. Preparations for my journey are in the hands of my host…; while I prepare…my pilgrim dress which consists of a black crepe skirt, very full, and a cape and hood in one, to be worn over ordinary dress when I visit Medina, also a black crepe veil entirely obscuring my features; but for Mecca I shall be entirely in white, no colour is allowed in any garment….
March 15 : Two hundred and fifty miles [400 km] from Jeddah to Medina took us fifteen hours to accomplish and I take off my hat to the little Ford that gallantly carried us through those sandy wastes…. Besides the pilgrims on camels, we met many on foot, toiling slowly through the scorching desert with water jugs in their hands clad in their Ihram (or two towels), and, as they were bare headed, many carried umbrellas. Ten days is the usual time it takes a camel to accomplish the journey between Medina and Jeddah and three weeks for the pilgrim on foot….
March 21 : Having discoursed on the subject of tolerance, we pass on to discuss the crisis the world is now facing, and the emancipation of women. The sheikhs show some amusement, tempered with admiration at the methods adopted by the Western woman to win herself a place in the sun; their sympathy is all on the side of the ladies. Though I occasionally caught a twinkle in the eye of Sid Ahmed, and both the sheikhs often smiled, I never heard them give way to loud laughter….
March 26 : I am in the Mosque of Mecca, and for a few seconds I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it. We are walking on white marble through a great vault whose ceiling is a full fifty feet above us, and enter pillared cloisters holding the arched roof and surrounding an immense quadrangle…. I had never imagined anything so stupendous…. We walk on to the Holy of Holies, the house of Allah [the Ka’bah] rising in simple majesty. It would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity of the great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervour of religious enthusiasm…. I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation….
March 27 : My hostess had already initiated me into the secrets of the harem or women’s quarters; the bakehouse where the bread is baked to supply the needs of the large company at present inhabiting the house; the great kitchen where she, the ladies and slaves all help in cooking and preparing the food; the laundry where more slaves are busy washing; while the three pretty nieces are ironing and folding away the household linen; the work-room where they sit sewing and gossiping….
April 1 : As I have been granted the great privilege of being received as a guest in this Mecca household I feel it is up to me to refute the false impressions that still exist in the West about the harem. Not only in this house, but in every harem I have visited in Arabia I have found my host with only one wife. Far from being a sensuous life of ease these ladies are busy with their household duties; at the same time living a happy, even a gay life, entertaining their friends and having their own amusements and festive occasions.
Pilgrimage to Mecca, published in 1934, is Lady Evelyn’s fascinating account of her journey to the holy cities. As much a record of an interior experience of faith as a conventional travelogue, the book is remarkable for its sympathy and vividness. It takes the form of a diary, punctuated with lengthy digressions intended to help her readers understand Islam. They address topics such as the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet, Islamic history and science, the position of women, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s achievements and Islamic principles relating to warfare and tolerance.
Burial Place of Lady Zainab ‘Evelyn’
Little is known about her life afterwards other than she travelled for a short period in Kenya. She died in an Inverness nursing home in 1963 at the age of 95, having instructed that a bagpiper play at her funeral and a Koranic passage, known as the “verse of light”, be inscribed on her gravestone – on the Glencarron estate in the Highlands
اَللّٰهُ نُوۡرُ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَالۡاَرۡضِ ؕ مَثَلُ نُوۡرِهٖ كَمِشۡكٰوةٍ فِيۡهَا مِصۡبَاحٌ ؕ الۡمِصۡبَاحُ فِىۡ زُجَاجَةٍ ؕ اَلزُّجَاجَةُ كَاَنَّهَا كَوۡكَبٌ دُرِّىٌّ يُّوۡقَدُ مِنۡ شَجَرَةٍ مُّبٰـرَكَةٍ زَيۡتُوۡنَةٍ لَّا شَرۡقِيَّةٍ وَّلَا غَرۡبِيَّةٍ ۙ يَّـكَادُ زَيۡتُهَا يُضِىۡٓءُ وَلَوۡ لَمۡ تَمۡسَسۡهُ نَارٌ ؕ نُوۡرٌ عَلٰى نُوۡرٍ ؕ يَهۡدِى اللّٰهُ لِنُوۡرِهٖ مَنۡ يَّشَآءُ ؕ وَ يَضۡرِبُ اللّٰهُ الۡاَمۡثَالَ لِلنَّاسِؕ وَاللّٰهُ بِكُلِّ شَىۡءٍ عَلِيۡمٌ ۙ
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. His Light (in the Universe) may be likened to a niche wherein is a lamp, and the lamp is in the crystal which shines in star-like brilliance. It is lit from (the oil) of a blessed olive tree that is neither eastern nor western.Its oil well nigh glows forth (of itself) though no fire touched it: Light upon Light. Allah guides to His Light whom He wills. Allah sets forth parables to make people understand. Allah knows everything.
Surah Nur verse 35